Study Tips

Prepare for Med School With These Best Learning Strategies (And Avoid Falling off the Cliff)

Alexander Roseman
Published on Jul 18, 2020. Updated on Jul 21, 2020.

If you're about to enter medical school, you should be prepared to completely change your study style to accommodate for the firehose of information that's coming your way. Today on the Osmosis blog, we're sharing an updated version of study tips from Dr. Alexander Roseman, who shares some of the best learning strategies that worked for him during his time in medical school.

A common analogy of learning in medical school is “drinking water from a fire hose.” As I look back on my experience in medical school, I would replace that analogy with another... 

In my experience, that first month of medical school has more in common with falling off a cliff than drinking from a fire hose. 

Keeping up with the material while trying to learn how to learn in medical school made the first month difficult. By the time I had figured out what study techniques worked, two weeks of material had already passed. Every new technique that I tried felt like reaching for a branch to just slow my descent but never to stop my fall.

Predictors of academic success in medical school

In their 1995 paper, "Students' general learning approaches and performances in medical school: a longitudinal study," Dr. Louise Arnold and Dr. Karen M. Feighny aimed to find which study techniques predicted academic success in medical school. They found that the factors that best predicted high GPAs in years one, two and four of medical school were high scores on the factor that measured efficient study habits and extrinsic motivation and low scores on the factors that measured rote memory and globetrotting, which the authors describe as “a fragmented approach to studying.”  

Arnold and Feighny don’t go into too much detail about this globetrotting factor, but I am assuming that it has to do with using too many different resources, a common trap many students fall into in their first year.

How I took control of my studying in medical school

While these results might not offer a magic bullet, they do offer helpful tips. First of all, developing an efficient study routine helped me finally keep up with the material. This change made that fire hose of information much more manageable. All I had to focus on was what I had to do one day at a time.

At first glance, the negative association of rote memorization seems counter-intuitive with the huge amount of information you as a medical student have to know. But as I soon found out, you need to know the big picture concepts to make sense of the thousands of facts that you have to keep straight.

Besides the factors mentioned above (high motivation and efficiency, low rote memorization and fragmented studying), Arnold and Feighny also found that the students’ perception of the course context and their baseline learning approaches determined their study techniques and ultimate performance in their courses

They make a big distinction between the students’ perception of the course context and the actual course context. This suggests that it is beneficial to learn what styles work for you (i.e. audio, visual, or drawing) and then adapting them to what the specific course requires. For example, the same techniques used to study human gross anatomy might not be the best for genetics.

From their results, the authors created a model to explain and predict medical school performance.

Take-home points from Arnold and Feighny's model

1. You can’t change your baseline scores on learning approaches. 

You should know your learning style and stick with it. For example, if you do not learn well with flashcards, don’t use flash cards. If you're a visual learner, you will find Osmosis videos helpful in medical school

2. Figure out what type of knowledge each course requires.

The level of detail needed for genetics is completely different than what anatomy requires. Some courses require a lot of rote memorization, while others might require heavier use of your critical thinking abilities.

3. Find a learning approach that would best set you up for learning the required material.

This is where the factors help maximize your efficiency. The factors are: increase motivation and efficiency, decrease rote memorization and fragmented studying.

You can use this model to succeed in your courses.  It will help you to think about what your learning strengths are and how they can complement what each course requires. This will set you up for success in your medical school courses and slow the descent a little when you are falling off that cliff.


Set yourself up to become a lifelong learner by taking Osmosis's online course, How to Learn in Medical School (free for Osmosis Prime members). In this course, you'll explore proven learning science techniques and learn how to put them into action to succeed in class, on exams, and in your career.